UN report: Malaysia's national poverty line does not reflect reality, needs revision

Philip Alston visits an indigenous community settlement in Sarawak. – Bassam Khawaja 2019

PETALING JAYA: Malaysia appears to have backtracked on its previous commitment to revise the national poverty line, says Philip Alston, the former United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

Based on a visit to Malaysia in August 2019, Alston's report released on Monday (July 6) stated that the national poverty rate of just 0.4% – the lowest in the world – was "misleadingly low and unrealistic".

In a statement, Alson said that while the previous government had committed to revising the national poverty line, the new government's response to Alston's final report throws that commitment into doubt, stating that it "stands by (the) absolute poverty rate".

The national poverty line of RM980 per household per month would see an urban family of four surviving on RM8 per person per day.

"The government's reversal is deeply concerning because the current line is inadequate and almost universally considered to be misleadingly low," Alston said.

"The insistence that the line is 'derived from internationally accepted standards' is a smokescreen and ignores the blatant mismatch between reality and statistics," he said.

Alston visited Malaysia from Aug 13 to 23,2019. He travelled to Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Sarawak, Sabah, and Kelantan, and met state and Federal government officials, international agencies, civil society, academics, and people affected by poverty in urban and rural areas.

"Malaysia has made impressive progress against poverty in the past forty years, but its continued use of an outdated and unrealistic poverty line obscures the troubling reality that millions scrape by on very low incomes, a situation only made worse by Covid-19," Alston explains.

If the government wants to eradicate poverty, revising the poverty line is just step one, says Alston.

"Progress will require a better understanding of the nature of poverty, especially in urban areas, improved social policies, and a new approach towards long-neglected populations that face higher rates of poverty."

"Millions of non-citizens are disproportionately affected by poverty, including migrants, refugees, stateless people and unregistered Malaysians, who are systematically excluded from official poverty figures, neglected by policymakers and often effectively barred from basic services.

"Migrant workers make up a sizeable part of the overall population and have been central to the country's economic success. Yet they have deliberately been left in a regulatory grey zone that facilitates sometimes scandalous abuses and generally poor conditions," he said.

Alston added that indigenous people continue to face discrimination and have far higher rates of poverty than the general population and experience widespread violations of their rights, appropriation of their land, and exclusion from social support.

Meanwhile, women in Malaysia shoulder a disproportionate share of housework, have an exceptionally low rate of workforce participation, are disproportionately stuck in lower-level jobs and are paid less than men. People with disabilities also face widespread discrimination and obstacles that prevent them from participating in society on an equal basis with others.

"The government should institute far-reaching reforms of the fractured and patchy social protection system to ensure that the needs of people living in poverty are comprehensively addressed, with a social protection floor for all," Alston said.

"Covid-19 has demonstrated that anyone can lose a job through no fault of their own, and reinforced the absolute necessity of strong support programs," says Alston.

Poverty reduction is made more difficult by the fact that key poverty-related data is often inaccessible or even non-existent, which is counterproductive and leaves policymakers and researchers essentially working in the dark, he adds.

"The government has a real opportunity to become a true champion of poverty reduction by improving the lives of many facing hardship, providing those in poverty with the support they need and ensuring that the country's economic growth is truly inclusive and benefits the entire population," says Alston.

READ ALSO: We need to talk about poverty

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